UC Davis chief outlines vision for ‘third campus’ in Sacramento area with focus on food, nutrition

UC Davis wants to build nothing less than a “third campus” in the Sacramento area with an emphasis on the study of food, agriculture and nutrition.

Warning that planning remains in its early stages, Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi offered a broad outline for the new campus Thursday, saying it would offer a blend of academic programs, research and a policy center devoted to food issues. Katehi said the University of California, Davis, hasn’t yet determined how big the campus would be, how much it would cost and how it would get financed. The project doesn’t have a timeline for breaking ground, and it could take up to 20 years to complete.

One possible location is the giant railyard on the northern edge of downtown Sacramento, but Katehi said other sites are being considered, including West Sacramento.

About the only thing that’s clear is its potential impact on the university, and the site that’s chosen for the new campus.

“It’s a big vision,” she said. “It’s going to materialize in phases. ...We are far from having a very detailed definition of what the third campus will be.”

The mix would likely include a school of population and public health, as well as clinics to treat patients dealing with nutrition and other food-related issues. Katehi said the project would include the World Food Center, a think tank that she likens to the famed Brookings Institution in Washington.

The center would enable UC Davis scientists and students to interact with global food experts. “Our hope is that it’s going to be a big center that’s going to bring in the top thinkers about food,” said Helene Dillard, dean of the university’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

It could also give the university the means to plant its flag near the Capitol, providing an opportunity to raise its profile as a source of ideas on food and agriculture for policymakers in Sacramento.

UC Davis wants “a location that is closer to the state Capitol and is more visible,” Katehi said in a meeting with Sacramento Bee editors and writers. It marked her first extensive public comments on the project since media reports surfaced earlier this month.

The proposal has drawn considerable attention from business leaders and elected officials in Sacramento and West Sacramento. Such a campus could jump-start redevelopment of the railyard, an idle 240-acre site that has been a source of frustration to city officials for decades. Officials say food processors, food-science companies and other agribusinesses could be induced to open offices or other facilities next to the campus.

“Because of the scale of what she’s talking about, it has a lot of potential to create energy and activity for the railyard,” said Sacramento developer Larry Kelley, who is buying the railyard from a Chicago real estate trust.

Another Sacramento developer, Kipp Blewett, has proposed building a year-round farmers market adjacent to the campus.

The new site would complement the university’s main campus in Davis and the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood. It probably wouldn’t bring a surge of new students to the university, although Katehi said the population and public health school would draw graduate students and possibly undergraduates, too.

Katehi said the campus and food center would draw on UC Davis’s long-standing strengths in food and agriculture research. The UC Board of Regents, which would have to approve the project, was briefed on the idea last summer and signaled to Katehi that it’s worth pursuing.

“They all know what the vision is,” she said. “They were all very supportive.”

She added: “There is a broad understanding that UC Davis is really the flagship (of the UC system) when it comes to agriculture.”

Developers trying to lure the new campus to West Sacramento’s fledgling Bridge District have said they’ve been told UC Davis is leaning toward building in the railyard. But Katehi insisted the location has not been determined. She said it’s possible the university could add on to the Medical Center complex, although there might not be enough available land.

Katehi said the railyard is “very attractive,” but she needs to be convinced that the former Union Pacific site has been completely cleaned up and the university wouldn’t become liable for any environmental problems.

“The last thing we want to do is have the regents receive a long list of lawsuits for things that happened way before,” she said.

Millions of dollars have been spent in recent years cleaning the railyard’s soil, contaminated by more than a century of rail car construction and maintenance operations. Kelley said he believes the work is “pretty well done” and any lingering problems can be resolved.

“The area that they’re talking about has been pretty extensively excavated,” the developer said. “I don’t think there are any issues that can’t be overcome.”

He said the proposed campus would likely go in the area just north of the historic railroad shop buildings.

Kelley has been working since last summer to complete the purchase of the railyard from Inland American Real Estate, the Chicago firm that took over the property after the previous developer defaulted on his loans. Kelley said he expects to close on the deal in 60 days.

Besides environmental questions, Katehi said the university also needs to more thoroughly explore the cost of building at the railyard.

“No one can commit to anything without knowing what it’s going to cost,” she said.

Paying for the campus would involve some combination of public and private financing, she said. It could be a year or so before UC Davis outlines a budget.

The World Food Center would likely be privately funded, and the university has already talked to foundations and private donors. Katehi said UC Davis would take steps, however, to ensure that the center’s research mission isn’t dictated by the funding sources.

“The conditions for accepting corporate funding will be very strict,” Katehi said.

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